What do you want to do when you’re all grown up?
By Jim Johnston
|"Let us summon a new spirit of patriotism, of responsibility, where each of us resolves to pitch in and work harder and look after not only ourselves but each other."—from Barack Obama’s election-night speech |
You’re retired. Your kids are all grown up and have their own lives. Your grandchildren have reached an age where they don’t want to be around you so much any more. Your brain still works just fine and you’ve got too much energy to just sit around playing bridge.
So what do you do?
In the case of my mother, who turned 84 last September, the answer was simple: join the Peace Corps.
It started with a magazine article my sister Eileen noticed and passed on to our mother. The Peace Corps, primarily an option for young college graduates, was looking for older volunteers. I doubt they were thinking of 84-year-olds, but it turns out there is no age limit. So mom went through the slow and rigorous application process and was accepted. She left for Morocco on March first.
She is now in a 3-month training period. Afterwards, she’ll work at a health care center, traveling to nearby villages to educate people about healthy living, pre-and post-natal care, and other related topics. “A glorified mother,” is how she described her new job to me, “I’ll be teaching young people how to take care of themselves. I’ve had a lot of practice at that.”
My mother, Muriel Gluck Johnston, was a wife and mother in New York’s suburbia in the 1950's. She raised six children, buried one, divorced a husband, worked at various office jobs, got her college degree at 65, then moved to Florida some years ago, supposedly to “retire.” She enjoys excellent health, which she attributes to good genes, exercise and a vegetarian diet. Her passion the past several years has been to travel, but something was missing: the need to be needed, a desire to be useful. After a life filled with responsibility, travel and leisure was simply not enough.
“When I was in college one of my friends entered the diplomatic corps and went to Rome. I was envious then and I guess I never got over it. I had passing thoughts of doing something exotic, like joining the WACS during World War Two, or signing with Aramco to work in Saudi Arabia after my youngest daughter entered law school. I filled out a few applications, but I was never motivated enough to mail them.”
My mother was raised to be an independent woman and had role models of strong older relatives. “My paternal grandfather taught me to change a tire and lots of other practical thing girls my age weren’t supposed to know,” she said. “I have a photo of my grandmother Emilie in her hiking outfit: knickers, boots laced to the knee and a bomber jacket. The neighbors were scandalized by her bicycle-riding..."at her age!" they said. This was in the thirties when women, especially elderly ones, were expected to sit in rocking chairs and knit. Emilie was 88 when she died of a stroke, supposedly brought on by altitude change while mountain climbing.”
While there are not many octogenarian Peace Corp volunteers, she’s not the only one. Recently an 84-year-old science teacher was sent to Ghana, and a woman in her eighties is in China. The Peace Corps has realized that mature volunteers are a good balance to the newly hatched college grads who make up the base group. As noted on their website, “Many volunteers find their age to be an asset, as people of developing nations respect and appreciate the decades of work and wisdom older volunteers bring to their communities.”
My youngest sister thinks she is out of her mind, but otherwise mom’s gotten nothing but praise and support. All of her kids get the pleasure of seeing people’s reaction when we tell the news. Pure inspiration is a rare and powerful thing.
While others may have some doubts or fears about such an undertaking, my mother does not. “It’s never occurred to me to be fearful, or to worry about being sick or alone. In all my travels, concern for my safety never entered the picture. My only reservation is the ability to learn the language. I’m still not sure what it will be, probably some tribal dialect of Arabic. Memorization has never been my strong point, so I hope it won’t hamper my efforts. But in general, I’m thrilled. I wake up in the middle of the night lately giddy with excitement.”
Go to http://muriel-morocco.blogspot.com / to catch up with Muriel in Morocco.
Jim Johnston, artist and writer, is author of Mexico City: an Opinionated Guide for the Curious Traveler. He has written articles for the Christian Science Monitor and the The News (Mexico City) on food, travel, vampires and opera. He lives in Mexico City with his partner Nick Gilman. His blog is www.mexicocitydf.blogspot.com; his website is www.jimjohnstonart.com.
The Peace Corps
To learn more about the Peace Corps, visit http://www.peacecorps.gov.
The website has general information and even online applications, but the links to videos and hundreds of volunteer journals are perhaps most interesting.
The Peace Corps traces its roots to 1960, when then Senator John F. Kennedy challenged University of Michigan students to serve their country in the cause of peace by living and working in developing countries. From that inspiration grew an agency of the federal government devoted to world peace and friendship. Since that time, more than 195,000 Peace Corps Volunteers have served in 139 host countries to work on issues ranging from AIDS education to information technology and environmental preservation. Today’s Peace Corps works in emerging and essential areas such as information technology and business development, and committing more than 1,000 new Volunteers as a part of the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief. Peace Corps Volunteers continue to help countless individuals who want to build a better life for themselves, their children and their communities.
Notable former volunteers include Paul Theroux, author of Mosquito Coast (Malawi 1963–65), musician and novelist Richard “Kinky” Friedman, (Malaysia 1967–69), Taylor Hackford, producer An Officer and a Gentleman (Bolivia 1968-69) and Chris Matthews, host of NBC’s Hardball (Swaziland 1968-70).